Mark Brayne: A Journalist Needs to Be Inside and Outside the Story

Mark Brayne: A Journalist Needs to Be Inside and Outside the Story

Mark Brayne, Director of Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma Europe, and psychotherapist, spoke to NetNovinar about professional reporting on trauma and about ways for journalists to protect themselves in such situations. Brayne worked as foreign correspondent and senior editor for Reuters and the BBC World Service for 30 years. He introduced routine trauma training and support to journalists and other media professionals at the BBC and other news organizations.

We spoke to Brayne during a seminar on the psychological approach to witnesses and victims, organized at the end of May 2007 in Palic, Vojvodina, by the OSCE Mission to Serbia, where Brayne was one of the lecturers. 

Journalists often have first hand experiences of trauma. What is the balance one should strike in covering traumatic events professionally, and still keep a level of self-preservation?

[MB] Journalists clearly have an important job to do when they're dealing with trauma. They're unlike the police or rescue and medical workers in that they don't have an explicit mandate to help. But journalists are also what might be called First Responders who often arrive first at the scene of an accident or disaster or crime. It's important that they are able to do their job and report the story.

But like the other First Responder professions, they will do that job better if they also take measures to protect themselves - through training and preparation and through self and mutual care both during and after an assignment. No policeman would go to a crime scene without extensive training, just as no soldier would go to war or aid worker attend to victims of a disaster without being prepared for the toll that this can take on themselves personally. Journalists are no different. Like other First Responders, they are professionals but also human beings with the vulnerabilities and resiliencies that go with being human. There is no contradiction, therefore, between professional coverage of traumatic events and self-preservation. Each is dependent upon the other.

In the countries of former Yugoslavia that have been ravaged by war, covering war crimes is an every day task for journalists. Most journalists aren't even aware that they may have accumulated great amounts of stress over time. What are some of the most obvious signs that a journalist may have reached his or her limit in reporting traumatic events? 

[MB] Stress and trauma have a physiological effect on all human beings. This varies according to who you are, what you are doing, how exactly you experience a stressful or traumatic event, and also your own personal and professional previous life experiences. There is therefore no absolute rule applicable to everyone, but there are very clear and common symptoms that can signal that a journalist, or ordinary human being, is reaching the end of his/her capacity to deal with trauma. These can include difficulties sleeping - either getting to sleep, or finding oneself waking early and being unable to get back to sleep. You might find it difficult to concentrate - since the brain is so busy unconsciously processing the accumulated impact of the trauma. You may find yourself feeling depressed or low-spirited, and in general bad physical health, losing your energy and your previous enjoyment of life. You might begin to find it difficult to share intimacy - either emotional or physical - with loved ones. You might find yourself constantly thinking about the evidence you've been hearing - and that can include dreaming about it, experiencing nightmares that fold together the traumatic material from the court and your own sense of vulnerability. You might find yourself having panic attacks – sweating unusually, your heart racing, finding it difficult to breathe. Or, you might just start using alcohol, or caffeine, or cigarettes in much greater quantities to get you through the day. Your friends and colleagues may also notice that you're reaching the end of your tether, as your sense of humour begins to fail and you snap and get irritated by people around you. You might have all of these things, or only a few. But whatever they are, they're a signal - often missed by journalists who don't associate them with their work - that your resources are running low.

In the countries of the region, it is rare that psychological help is offered to journalists at work. What are some alternative support systems a journalist may seek in order to deal with everyday stress?

[MB] The most important way to deal with trauma and stress, whether as a journalist or as an ordinary human being, is to have and to use good social support - from friends, family and, very importantly, from colleagues.

Most people who've been affected by trauma won't necessarily need formal psychological treatment from a professional, but above all a sense of being appreciated, acknowledged, and also loved by those who are closest to them. You can also do a lot for yourself. Since trauma affects the entire body, use the body to help process its effects. Take regular exercise, even if it's just a brisk walk around the block or down to the park and back. Try to get enough sleep - as sleep helps the brain to process stress and trauma. Drink lots (and lots) of water - which helps the body flush away the stress chemicals and hormones that accumulate when dealing with trauma, and restore a healthy balance. Talk about what you're doing and going through with a trusted friend or colleague or partner - or, if you'd rather not talk, write about it in a journal just for yourself. Taking care of these basics can make all the difference in how you deal with stress and trauma. But if you're hurting and just not getting back on track, then it IS a good idea to seek out professional help. Even a few sessions with someone who really knows what they're talking about and can help you work through the traumacan make a world of difference.

During your lecture in Palic, Serbia, you mentioned that photographers and cameramen are often more vulnerable to accumulated trauma then "traditional" journalists are. Why is that?

[MB] We're not absolutely certain, but there could be a number of reasons. Cameramen and photographers tend, for example, to work alone more than is the case with writing journalists. And as I said before, social support – or the lack of it - can make a big difference in how someone processes trauma. Also, if you're a photographer, you have to get  and stay closer to nasty things than do those who just write about them. It's pretty obvious that the closer you are to trauma and the more of it you experience and witness, the greater the risk that it will wear down your defences.

Another possible reason is that, unlike writing journalists who have to construct a story about what they've witnessed and heard, photographers tend to keep their experiences in fragmented form, as individual snapshots or clips, with other people (editors, producers) working the pictures up into a coherent narrative. We know from research that creating narrative helps the brain heal from trauma. Which is perhaps why writing journalists can also find the writing process a profoundly therapeutic exercise - something photographers and cameramen don't always experience.
Finally, those taking images and video are required, to a certain professional extent, to dissociate when they're witnessing trauma, viewing events through their camera lens in conscious terms almost as if they were watching a film or working in the safety of a cutting room. The body, however, programmed by millions of years of evolution, knows very well that the trauma is real, not just a picture, and will be responding accordingly, if unconsciously. We know from research that people who dissociate at the time of trauma are more likely to have trouble coping with the experience in the long term. So, those who work with images and video rather than with text and narrative need, perhaps, to take special care.

When reporting trauma, what is the best way to approach a victim, especially someone who may be intensely emotional? How do you keep that balance between showing compassion - as we are told as journalists that we should be open to emotional experience in order to get the better story - and keeping your objectivity?

[MB] I'm a little wary about the term "objectivity", if it's meant to imply, as it often does, that the journalist should somehow not allow himself to be affected at all by what he's witnessing or hearing. Of course a journalist will be affected - he is after all first of all a human being, emotionally programmed by evolution, and only then a journalist. And I do believe, as you say, that someone who can show compassion and allow themselves to have that emotional experience is likely to be a better reporter of what's happening, capable of conveying its true meaning and essence to the audience or reader. At the same time, of course a balance has to be struck. As I saidin the first answer, there's an important job to be done, and a journalist therefore needs to be able both to be IN the story, and OUTSIDE it - at the same time. Certainly, when you come to write the story or file your report, you need to be careful to find an appropriate distance to the story, so that you can report it accurately, fairly and with insight and compassion. These are perhaps better words than objectivity and truth, since there are often many contradictory and subjective truths in a story.

Paradoxically, I believe that the more, as a journalist, you can be aware of your own subjectivity, the more likely you are to be able to write a reasonably objective report - in the appropriate sense of that word.

Objectivity is especially hard to keep if you are living in a community that may be collectively traumatized by a war.  How do journalists who are affected by the experience they are reporting on, and may even be victims of that very event, keep their distance and neutrality, and avoid one-sided reports? Is this even possible?

[MB] Yes, I believe that it is possible to be a good and fair journalist even when you or your community have been personally wounded, affected, even traumatized by the events you are reporting. By being aware of your own vulnerabilities and subjectivity, and those of others, you can as a journalist and as indeed a human being have greater compassion for yourself and for others, and hold what we in psychotherapy call that position of "Dual Awareness" - being both inside and outside the story. By being inside, you have insights and understandings that pure outsiders might not have. But by being outside at the same time, you can see these things in a better context. That can be of great benefit to the reader or audience - but it's important in the journalistic process that you don't simply cut off that part of you which also feels a victim or affected. Listen to the information that part of you has to convey - and use it carefully and with compassion to inform your understanding of the story, in all its dimensions. It's not about distance and neutrality. It's about fairness and insight.

What are some habits and stress-coping skills a journalist should develop if his or her job involves reporting on potentially traumatic events?

[MB] See the before mentioned suggestions. Talk about things. Use your body to process the stress. Recognise your own vulnerabilities and limitations – and those of your colleagues. Don't pretend you're superman or superwoman. Be humble, but also be kind to yourself.

You mentioned during your lecture that leaders - editors - need to provide resilient role models and optimism? Can you tell our readers a bit about the FINE approach that the Dart Centre developed?

[MB] We've developed this approach to listening to someone who's been through an experience of trauma - whether journalist or victim/survivor - with help from Britain's Royal Marines, who of course deal with the implications of trauma in a military sense all the time.

What people who've been through trauma need above all is to be listened to and taken seriously. Journalists are trained how to ask questions. They're very rarely trained - in the way psychotherapists are - how to listen to the answers. And to keep listening sometimes, without filling all the silences.

If you ask a fellow journalist breezily how he or she is after a difficult assignment or a challenging day listening to evidence in court, the chances are they'll just say "I'm Fine" -  and you'll all leave it at that. Yet, one of the key complaints that journalists in all cultures make about their workplace and management is that no-one seems really interested in how they're doing when they dealing with bad stuff in a story. Just asking how are you and being content with the answer “Fine” is not always enough. So we've recast the meaning of Fine to stand for Facts, Impact, Now and Education.

Instead of walking away when a colleague - or indeed an interviewee - says they're fine, take some time to stay with them and their experience, and truly allow them to say how they are doing. Starting with the Facts of what they've been experiencing. Not the feelings first (NEVER ask: “How do you feel?”) as if they're sitting on trauma. That can blot out their ability to think rationally. Take time to ask the good journalistic questions of Who, What, When, How, Where. Be careful with Why, though, as that can be quite intrusive. Take time to listen to their narrative, and only then gently ask them how they experienced, THEN, what they're talking about – emotionally and intellectually. That's the Impact. Then move into the NOW - how are you doing now, how are you sleeping, eating, what kind of support are you getting, truly, how are you. Then the E can stand for some Education at the end, where on the basis of a little trauma knowledge you can remind each other what the normal reactions to extreme stress and trauma are. For again and again, we find that a simple understanding of the basic rules of trauma response can make the difference between being overwhelmed by and even terrified of confusing reactions, and feeling pretty shaken, but OK, and pulling through it.

You were a foreign correspondent for 30 years, a senior editor for Reuters and the BBC World Service. Eight years ago, you decided to become a psychotherapist. Why did you decide to change your line of work? Are there any similarities between the two professions?

[MB] Psychotherapists and journalists do a very similar job. They sit down, listen to people, seek to construct narrative, make sense of what's happened. But therapists are trained how to listen, and to respect another person's very personal experience. Therapists also get regular supervision, where they can check in with a more expert professional colleague whether they're getting it right on behalf of the client.

As a therapist, I try not to make things worse for my client, and everything I do is governed by respect for their integrity as a human being. Journalists are rather different there. Having listened to someone's story - and been taken often deeply into a person's confidence - journalists take that narrative and tell it to the world. As best they can, but in a condensed, sometimes distorted, and indeed very often inaccurate way which doesn't do justice to the depth of what has been shared. This can be very distressing to the person who's opened themselves up in this way. There is of course much good journalism, but there is also too much that is bad. That is one of the reasons I decided to switch into psychotherapy. I get to hear what happens next, and I don' t have to put that person's intimate and often painful story on the six o'clock news, turning them just into a news commodity.

I loved in many ways being a journalist, and do not regret those years. However, I now find I can use and enjoy all the deeper skills and experience of good journalism in the field of therapy - without the superficiality and, yes, the abuse of trust.

Besides advocating ethical, sensitive and informed reporting of tragedy and violence, your organization, inter alia, also provides education to working journalists about the psychology of trauma, and professional advice in covering trauma. You have held a number of workshops for leading media organizations in Europe. Are you planning to hold educational sessions for journalists from the Balkans, and other SEE countries, in the near future?

[MB] Both personally and on behalf of the Dart Centre, I greatly look forward to continuing to work with and support emotionally aware journalism and emotionally healthy journalists in South-East Europe and the former Yugoslavia - a part of the world I covered with passion and engagement for many years between 1981 and the mid 1990s. We have just completed a trauma-and-journalism workshop in Opatija, Croatia, with colleagues from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, with a view to spreading these ideas and understandings more widely in the region. There is much important work to be done - and with support also from the OSCE, a very important beginning has been made.

For more about Mark Brayne, visit the Dart Centre website.